People who drink moderate amounts of alcohol have better health on average than those who are teetotalers, French scientists said on Wednesday.
Researchers found that most of the health benefits in drinkers were not a direct result of the alcohol, but due to indirect links such as being less stressed, engaging in more physical activity and enjoying a better social status.
"Moderate alcohol intake is a powerful marker of a higher social level, superior general health status and lower cardiovascular risk," said Boris Hansel, of the Hospital of Pitie-Salpetriere in Paris, who led the study.
He stressed, however, that the study did not show any causal links, and should not be used as evidence to promote alcohol.
Excessive drinking is associated with chronic liver disease, many cancers, alcohol poisoning, fetal alcohol syndrome and heart disease, and alcohol is to blame for 2.3 million deaths globally each year, according to the World Health Organization.
Hansel and colleagues studied almost 150,000 French people and split them into four groups —those who never drank, low level drinkers (less than 10 grams of alcohol a day) moderate drinkers (10g - 30g a day) and heavy drinkers (more than 30g).
Their findings were published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a Nature title.
They found that low and moderate drinking groups of both men and women had better general health than those who never drank or drank large amounts.
Men who drank moderately were more likely to have lower cardiovascular risk, heart rate, stress, depression and body mass index. They also scored higher on subjective health measures such the amount of exercise they did.
In Britain, 8g of alcohol is classed as one unit, or one standard drink.
The scientists found similar trends in moderate female drinkers, who had lower blood pressure and slimmer waists.
For both sexes, moderate drinkers were also found to have higher amounts of so-called "good cholesterol", or High Density Lipoprotein (HDL), in their blood.
But Hansel said this did not mean alcohol had an influence on good cholesterol or could protect against heart disease.
He said the key findings was that moderate alcohol drinking was a very good indicator of "optimal social status" and this may be a key reason for better health in this group.
"These findings suggest that it is not appropriate to promote alcohol consumption as a basis for cardiovascular protection," he said, adding that "pleasure" was the best justification for moderate drinking.